ASIA/LEBANON – The many implications of the “Lebanese emergency” at the center of the ecclesial summit convened by Pope Francis

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Beirut – The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches and ecclesial communities present in Lebanon are leaving for Rome and on Wednesday, July 1 they will take part in the reflection and prayer meeting for the Land of Cedars convened in the Vatican by Pope Francis.
The intense program of the day includes, among other things, three sessions of dialogue and discussion among those present, who will all be seated around a round table in the Clementina Room. A detailed agenda on the issues that will be at the center of the common reflection sessions has not been released. The turbulent Lebanese events of recent years allow us to imagine at least some of the emergency issues that will recur in the interventions of the participants during the meeting. Political paralysis and economic emergency. Since last August, Lebanon has been without a government. After the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, which took place following the deadly explosions that took place on August 4, 2020 in the port of Beirut, the cross vetoes between the political blocs and the various leaders prevented the prime minister in charge Saad Hariri, leader of the Sunni Future Party, from forming a new executive. Political paralysis is compounded by a social and economic emergency, aggravated by the pandemic, which – as Maronite Patriarch Béchara Boutros Raï underlined last June 14 – risks jeopardizing the food subsistence of half the population. In recent weeks, the devaluation has reached dizzying peaks: it took up to 18 thousand Lebanese pounds to buy one dollar on the black market, while the official exchange rate is still 1570 to one. Rationed fuel and electricity and assaults on banks – such as those that took place in the last few days in Tire and Sidon – provide the image of a country that once again appears to be sinking. The political-economic crisis seems to be read by some analysts as a symptom of an imminent collapse of the partition model that governs the entire Lebanese institutional architecture, and which in spite of everything has guaranteed peace after the ferocious years of the civil war.
The Lebanese “formula” provides for the egalitarian participation of Christians and Muslims at the level of Parliament, government and institutional offices. And the delicate balance of the system reserves the presidential office for a Maronite Christian. The opposing blocs that have dominated the Lebanese political scene for years also crosswise divide the Christian parties. The Free Patriotic Movement, founded by Aoun, represents the party most voted by Christians, and has an axis with Hezbollah, the Shiite party with its own sectarian army, linked to Iran and also militarily aligned with Assad’s Syria. On the other hand, Christian groups such as the Lebanese Forces have for years formed an alliance with the Sunni “Future” Party in the “March 14 Coalition”, supported by Saudi Arabia.
In mid-August 2020, in an attempt to find new ways to protect the identity and the peculiar historical features of Lebanon, Patriarch Raï set out in a “Memorandum for Lebanon” the proposal to solemnly and officially reaffirm “Lebanese neutrality” to avoid that the nation is sooner or later torn apart by the clashes between geopolitical blocs that are confronted in the Middle East. The Maronite Patriarch, in recent months, has repeatedly asked for the proposal on Lebanese “neutrality” to be affirmed and “anchored” through an International Assembly on Lebanon to be held under the patronage. But Patriarchs and heads of other Churches and ecclesial communities present in Lebanon have so far not officially pronounced themselves on the proposal made by Cardinal Raï. The issue of Syrian refugees. The conflict that has torn neighboring Syria apart for years has prompted more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees to find refuge in Lebanon. A phenomenon that according to various analysts contributes in the long run to destabilize the delicate Lebanese institutional architecture that guarantees the coexistence of the various religious communities. Patriarch Raï has also repeatedly insisted on the need to find agreed ways to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to their country, also to prevent the multitude of Syrian expatriates in Lebanon from becoming a “mass of maneuver” to rekindle sectarian clashes in the country. Most of those Syrian refugees – underlined the Patriarch in an interview published on Fides prefer to stay in Lebanon, and the international community also strengthens this purpose, when it states that Syrian refugees cannot repatriate “because there is no security in Syria and a political solution must first be found”. A position motivated according to the Patriarch by “political purposes”, which recalls the scenario already experienced in recent Lebanese history with the arrival of refugees from Palestine: “The Palestinians” the Maronite Patriarch recalled in that interview “have been in Lebanon since 1948. And they have been waiting for a political solution for more than seventy years. A solution that will never come true. There was talk of a two-people-two-State solution, but now it has become impossible. Because that land that was destined to be the Palestinian State is all strewn with Israeli settlements”.
The crisis of Christian schools. Among its many side effects, the Covid-19 pandemic in Lebanon also had the worsening of the crisis in Christian schools, the historic garrison of the Christian presence in the Land of Cedars. The economic condition of many Catholic schools, as already documented by Agenzia Fides, had deteriorated especially since the summer of 2017, after the government of the time had established the new “wage grids” for public sector workers, also including the school sector. Since then, the situation had already become unsustainable, especially for schools operating in the less prosperous urban and rural areas of the country. The worsening of the economic crisis and then the closure of school buildings imposed by the pandemic crisis have led to the collapse of a situation already seriously compromised. The heads of Christian schools have long denounced the total inaction of public institutions in preparing adequate support measures for the emergency, in which schools that operate substantially free of charge in the regions and urban areas economically more underdeveloped, risk being wiped out by the crisis.